How Can We Improve Plant Research?

Daintree Rainforest plant diversity. Photo: Australian Geographic

Plants have been researched at great length for a long time and our knowledge of plants is constantly progressing. Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement in how we research things and what factors are considered. Regents Professor Peter B. Reich from the University of Minnesota recently gave a seminar on the use of plant traits to understand global change and the terrestrial biosphere, which provided some suggestions to how we can improve current plant research. 

The Importance of Plant Research

It is first important to understand why plant research is needed. Plants play a crucial role in our ecosystem. We rely on them for clean air which even children’s author Dr. Seuss covered in The Loraxwhere greed led to the disappearance of trees and pollution was rampant. Plants also, provide us with food, shelter, and biodiversity overall. Biodiversity is what helps our ecosystem flourish and preserves the natural resources we need to survive. Researching plants and biodiversity help us understand ecology, various plant relationships, and ways to preserve nature. Although I may not be studying plants, I understand the importance of this research and I can easily see the value in constant improvement with plant research. 

Plant Functional Traits

In Reich’s seminar he expressed the need for studying functional plant traits to help simplify our understanding of ecology, which is quite complex in general. Reich claims that “a few simple traits explain half of all ecology.” These functional traits can include height, specific leaf area, seed size, leaf size, leaf nutrient concentrations (photosynthesis), and many others. Current research has shown plant traits to be useful in understanding organismal function and fitness, community assembly and dynamics, functional biogeography and ecosystem processes. 

Functional traits. Click for source.

For organismal function and fitness, traits were shown to relate to seedling performance in large saplings. This sapling study by Wright used wood density and leaf mass per area (LMA) to explain 40 percent of sapling growth and mortality. In relationship to community assembly, a study of Cedar Creek fire frequency demonstrated that traits are similar between closely related species which helps traits to be conserved over time. Traits assist with functional biogeography and ecosystem processes by demonstrating relationships. Reich referred to his research where photosynthesis in forest canopies was shown to be a function of the canopy nitrogen output percentage, which demonstrates consequences of traits for ecosystems. It is clear that the functional traits of plants can be extremely useful in many aspects of ecology research. 

Improvements for Plant Research

Reich’s research on traits suggests that studies on trait diversity, longitudinal studies, expanding functional trait knowledge, and focus on systems are needed in plant research. 

The productivity dramatically changed in the later 9 years of the experiment. Photo: Reich & Hobbie, 2013

The importance of trait diversity and longitudinal studies is portrayed in a recent study by Reich on the impacts of biodiversity loss. His research showed that having more species diversity, and thereby trait diversity, enhances plant productivity. Additionally, this study showed productivity changed dramatically after four years. This indicates that short-term plant research may have inaccurate data and should be approached with caution.

Parts of a plant. Click for source

Although many functional traits such as height, seed size, and leaf size have been studied at length, there is much to be discovered still in regards to other traits such as roots or hydraulics. Naturally these traits may be more difficult to study, but with improvements in technology there are more opportunities. Some work is already being done to understand tree hydraulics as I discussed in a previous blog regarding Brendan Choat’s research. There may be many more functional traits that we have yet to discover and understand beneath the surface. 

Lastly, Reich feels that researchers should focus more on entire systems. As we look at the whole picture we can consider not just multiple traits of one organism, but also the interactions with other organisms. One good example of these types of interactions is the symbiotic relationship with plants and the fungi mycorrhizae. The fungus and plants help each other to grow, but this relationship may have other roles yet to be discovered. Looking at relationships and whole systems can be applied to every area of research and may provide the largest improvement within research today.  


Plant traits can certainly provide a lot of useful information in many aspects of ecology. Researching more about these traits is just one answer for how we can improve plant research. Ecologists should consider looking at trait diversity, more longitudinal studies, exploring less known traits, and focus on the whole system. 

Further Reading:


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